A probe launched after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police has resurfaced criticism for use of force practices against residents of the city.
For more than two years, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) staff interviewed police, city officials and people who’ve alleged mistreatment at the hands of officers. The investigation found much of the criticism was based in reality.
Investigations found use of “dangerous techniques and weapons against people who committed at most a petty offense and sometimes no offense at all.”
Before the findings were released Friday morning; MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with activist and attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, who has been a longtime critic of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) practices.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
The following is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.
What’s your sense of the depth of community involvement the Department of Justice conducted for these interviews?
I would say there was quite a bit of community involvement. I know that a large group of activists and organizers spoke with representatives from the Department of Justice early on in their investigation.
One group in particular, Communities United Against Police Brutality, which is led by longtime activist Michelle Gross, actually worked collaboratively with the DOJ to capture community voice, and to bring those testimonials forward about residents interactions with MPD over the years.
What do you hope to see in the federal DOJ report that wasn’t in the state’s probe?
It will be interesting to see how the likelihood of federal consent decree interacts with what is happening at the state level. As you know, after the Minnesota Department of Human Rights settled with the city of Minneapolis, the next step is actually to have court approval of that particular court enforceable agreement. But as of right now, it has not been approved by the court.
It will be interesting to see whether the federal consent decree trumps what’s happening at the state level, or if they’re able to work in tandem with each other. What I’m hoping to see at the federal level is a consent decree that is focused upon addressing the unconstitutional policing that has happened over the years in the city of Minneapolis, such as looking at issues such as the use of excessive force.
But I do want to make sure that folks understand that a consent decree, even at the federal level, is not a panacea. There are challenges with consent decrees, although they do help. In many jurisdictions, there are some challenges such as the cost. It could cost millions of dollars over the years for consent decree and sometimes consent decree can drag on for years to come without any real change in the conduct of a police department.
Why don’t you think there was the political will to deal with these problems years ago?
In Minneapolis, unfortunately, elected officials have become so complacent over the years with maintaining the status quo when it comes to the conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department. All of these years, we have been calling out the problems. The Black community in particular has been crying out for relief, and for some reason, our cries had fallen on deaf ears until the killing of George Floyd.
And finally, not only did the state take notice, but also the federal government. But the reality is that between the mayor and the city council, a lot of the changes that are going to be recommended as part of the federal consent decree could have been implemented by those elected officials many years ago. But I don’t think that there was enough pressure from mainstream middle class, white people who live in the city of Minneapolis to make city officials actually do their jobs and follow the law.
What role did former MPD leaders have in blocking this change?
It was a combination of a lack of political will, on the part of previous mayors and city council members, along with complacency of some previous police chiefs. I think [about] how horrible the Minneapolis Police Department became under [former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan and Former Mayor R.T. Ryback’s] leadership, and it just became a part of the culture that the type of behavior that we’re going to hear about today, and that we heard about in the MDHR report, became par for the course.
It’s really unfortunate that it got to this point where we needed federal intervention, because again, there were opportunities all along to make these changes, especially as the city started paying out millions of dollars to settle excessive force lawsuits over the years. So they knew that this was a problem. It’s been well-documented. And yet, they still refuse to take action with the sense of urgency.
Do you think Brian O’Hara is the right leader to shepherd the department through this?
Well, I hope so. I know that Chief O’Hara has experience in Newark, N.J. in terms of overseeing the implementation of their consent decree. That was one of the main reasons that he was hired. Plus, he's an outsider to the culture within the Minneapolis Police Department. But it remains to be seen whether he will be able to lead the department into a new era. I certainly hope so. For the sake of Minneapolis residents, and particularly for residents of color who bear the brunt of police violence and abuse.